“The chaste Camellia’s pure and spotless bloom, That boasts no fragrance and conceals no Thorn.”
There is more to this exquisite flower than meets the eye. Rich in history, it’s hard to know where to begin, so lend me an ear while we walk the passages of time with a flower that has been around some 300 million years.
With rich beginnings in eastern and southern Asia, from the Himalayas east to Japan and Indonesia. There are some 300 described species and possibly 3000 hybrids. The genus was named after Georg Joseph Kamel, a Moravian Jesuit missionary and botanist. He travelled and worked in the Philippines where he discovered a certain species of camellia. On his return to Spain in 1639 he presented Queen Maria Theresa with a beautiful ‘mother-of-pearl’ vase in which grew a small shrub with glossy green leaves, bearing two white flowers. Excited to receive such a gift she immediately rushed to show King Ferdinand. He pronounced the flower ‘beautiful but scentless’.
There are also two very sorrowful French stories connected to the camellia.
The first is from a semi-autobiographical novel by Alexandre Dumas written in 1848, La Dame aux Camellia, and is said to be based on the author’s brief love affair with courtesan Marie Duplessis.
The story is set in mid-19th-century France, and tells the tragic love story between fictional characters Marguerite Gautier, a courtesan suffering from consumption, and Armand Duval, a young bourgeois. Marguerite is nicknamed la dame aux camélias (French for 'the lady of the camellias') because she wears a red camellia when she is menstruating, and thus unavailable for making love - and a white camelia when she is!
Armand falls in love with Marguerite and ultimately becomes her lover. He convinces her to leave her life as a courtesan and to live with him in the countryside. This idyllic existence is interrupted by Armand's father, who, concerned with the scandal created by the illicit relationship, and fearful that it will destroy Armand's sister's chances of marriage, convinces Marguerite to leave. Until Marguerite's death, Armand believes that she left him for another man. Marguerite's death is described as an unending agony, during which Marguerite, abandoned by everyone, regrets what might have been.
This story was then set to the most passionate and movingly beautiful opera of them all - opera La Traviata.
The next sadly tragic tale involves that of Coco Chanel and her handsome, wealthy polo playing lover, Capel, that all began when he gave her a single white camellia. Their love affair was brief and ended tragically, but left an indelible mark on Chanel’s heart. Even though she has gone, the constantly occurring emblematic camellia lives on through her designs. The flower made her famous, and she made the flower famous.
Not only does the camellia nourish visually, it also enriches us in other ways. According to legend, tea was first discovered by the legendary Chinese herbalist, Shennong, in 2737 BCE. Seems that the emperor liked his drinking water boiled to ensure it was clean. One day, on a trip to a distant region, he and his army stopped to rest. A servant began boiling water, and didn’t notice that a dead camellia leaf fell into the water. The water tinged brown, but due to extreme fatigue, no one noticed.
Slowly sipping away the emperor announced that he was feeling refreshed and it wasn’t until he neared the end, he noticed the now rehydrated leaf. On closer investigation, he recognized it as the camellia (Sinensis) – beginning an error of tea drinking, trade routes, wars, greed, operas, broken hearts, fashion and finally beauty. Finally, did you know that the camellia (Japonica) produces tiny seeds that produce oil with anti-aging qualities? It is the flower that keeps on giving.